SMS from Turkey

3 October 2010

Tarkasnawa of Mira

In 2003, Marco and I rented a car and made a trip through Turkey. As always, we didn’t have time to visit the most important sites (I still haven’t been in Perge or Pergamon), because we lost way too much time on silly trivialities like finding the rock relief of king Tarkasnawa of the Hittite vassal kingdom Mira. It is not terribly important, but it’s mentioned by Herodotus, who believed it to be an Egyptian relief (more…). I think we spent about two hours, searching in vain, before we decided to give up. At that very moment, we spotted the small stairs along the road that indicated the place where we ought to climb to the rock. I will never forget the shout of Marco, who was the first to go up, that he saw the object of our quest.

I most have told this story several times, not ignoring our futile attempt to ask a Turkish woodcutter, who spoke only Turkish, whether he knew the relief. Apparently, my stories must have made some friends curious, because the other day, I received an SMS from two friends who were, at that moment, standing next to Tarkasnawa, and knew they would cause me great joy by letting me know where they were standing.

More here; satellite photo here.

Circumnavigating Africa

2 May 2010

A Phoenician ship on a Phoenician coin

One of the most interesting anecdotes in the HerodotusHistories is the story about the circumnavigation of Africa by a group of Phoenician explorers (4.42). In Aubrey de Selincourt‘s translation:

Africa is washed on all sides by the sea except where it joins Asia, as was first demonstrated, so far as our knowledge goes, by the Egyptian king Necho, who … sent out a fleet manned by a Phoenician crew with orders to sail west about and return to Egypt and the Mediterranean by way of the Straits of Gibraltar. The Phoenicians sailed from the Arabian gulf into the southern ocean, and every autumn put in at some convenient spot on the African coast, sowed a patch of ground, and waited for next year’s harvest. Then, having got in their grain, they put to sea again, and after two full years rounded the Pillars of Heracles in the course of the third, and returned to Egypt. These men made a statement which I do not myself believe, though others may, to the effect that as they sailed on a westerly course round the southern end of Africa, they had the sun on their right – to northward of them. This is how Africa was first discovered by sea.

The last detail is of course the most interesting point: Herodotus’ argument that the story cannot be true, is the best proof that it really happened. In class, I often use this to explain Herodotus’ method: he tells the stories he heard, but he does not always believe it himself. He’s not a simple teller of tall stories, but is sometimes skeptical, and the reader must be extremely alert if he wants to learn – to decode – Herodotus’ own ideas. (Nearly all modern literature about the battle at Thermopylae is irrelevant, because almost all scholars have ignored that it is introduced with the highly significant gnomê, “in my opinion”: Herodotus does not claim that Leonidas’ presumed self-sacrifice is a fact.)

But to return to our Phoenician explorers, it is interesting to know that at this very moment, a group of mostly British sailors is trying to repeat the great voyage. You will find their website here and you can track them here. I must confess that I am a bit puzzled about their route, because they do not stay close to the shore, as the ancient Phoenicians must have done (explanation). I can understand that they wanted to evade the Somalian pirates, so it makes sense that they made a detour to a point even east of the Seychelles, but I am surprised that in the Atlantic, they visited Saint Helena. As a landlubber, I can only think of sea currents, but somehow, it strikes me as a bit inauthentic.

That being said, it is a good thing that archaeology can be presented as an adventure. The real adventure is, of course, intellectual, but our neo-Phoenicians make science accessible and comprehensible in a way that is better than imitating Indiana Jones, as Zahi Hawass does.

Cambyses’ Still Lost Army

13 November 2009
Photo Marco Prins

Persian soldiers, on a glazed relief from Susa, now in the Louvre.

You can leave it to archaeologists to make exaggerated claims and you can leave it to journalists to swallow the nonsense. The readers of this little blog know that I have introduced the Ctesias Scale to measure poor archaeological journalism. A possible example of wilful disinformation was the announcement, earlier this week, that the remains of Cambyses‘ lost army had been found: go here or here for examples.

The story: in 525 BCE, the Persian king Cambyses conquered Egypt. After that, he sent an army to the west, to conquer the Oracle of Ammon. It never reached the place, and the Greek researcher Herodotus says that it was destroyed by a violent desert storm. Now, two Italian archaeologists, the twin brothers Alfredo and Angelo Castiglioni, claim to have found remains of the army, partly on a sheltered place where people might have tried to find cover against a sandstorm.

There are two reasons to be suspicious.

In the first place, Herodotus is not a very reliable author. Not because he is not interested in the truth: on the contrary, he is certainly one of the most truthloving writers of the ancient world. But it was hard to get correct information, and Herodotus was standing in a tradition that appreciated an artful presentation. So, in his Histories, Xerxes‘ failed expedition is mirrored by the failures of earlier Persian rulers. So, Herodotus says that Cyrus was defeated by the Massagetes (according to Xenophon, Cyrus died of natural causes); that Darius lost a navy in a storm at the Athos; that Darius also lost an army during a Scythian campaign; and that Cambyses lost an army in the desert. These stories are not necessarily untrue, but the repetition makes one suspicious. I would not be surprised if some of these stories were created by Herodotus because he believed they had to have happened.

But even if we assume that Cambyses sent out an expedition to the Oracle of Ammon, there is still a reason not to believe the claim by our two Italian archaeologists. What they have found, or claim to have found, is a set of Persian weapons (e.g., arrowheads), skulls, and bones. Even if we assume that they are indeed Persian, it is a serious logical fallacy to assume that they belong to soldiers of Cambyses’ campaign. The Persians controled Egypt for more than a century (from 525 to c.401) and there must have been dozens of occasions on which soldiers were sent to the west. All these expeditions may have found itself lost in the western desert. What archaeologists can find, is evidence that a Persian army got into trouble; but stating that the finds belonged to a particular expedition is introducing a secundum quid. I think we must be suspicious.


Perhaps this message at Andie Byrnes’ Egyptology Blog may be relevant too; although it leaves the Cambyses story itself unchallenged, it suggests that the Castiglionis are not completely bona fide. That may be mudslinging, but I think that suspicion about the report is completely justifiable.


It helps to check the facts; David Meadows investigated the case. The journalists who swallowed this nonsense, ought to be under orders to read his article.

Common Errors (21): Etruscan Origins

28 June 2009
Etruscan urn from Chiusi. Rijksmuseum van oudheden, Leiden

Etruscan urn from Chiusi. Rijksmuseum van oudheden, Leiden

Just north of Rome were the cities of the Etruscans, twelve in number, according to the tradition. This nation has a reputation of being very mysterious. And it is true that they lacked the necessary credentials to give other ancient nations the idea that they understood the Etruscans: their origins were contested. The Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus claims that they came from Lydia in western Turkey (Histories, 1.94). However, the Greek writer Dionysius – also a native of Halicarnassus – objected that the Etruscans did not speak Lydian and did not sacrifice to eastern gods (Roman Antiquities, 1.30.2). He concluded that they had to be native Italians.

The mystery was not diminished when nineteenth-century scholars discovered that the Etruscan language did not belong to the Indo-European language family. Its speakers were therefore unrelated to the other Italian and Anatolian people. Because it was believed, back then, that language told something about a nation’s nature, the Etruscans were more enigmatic than ever.

It would be exaggerated to say that all riddles have been solved in the twentieth century, but much progress has been made. DNA research appears to have shown that at least part of the people that were later known as Etruscans are related to people in Asia Minor: there seems to have been a migration from the eastern part of the Mediterranean to Italy. This conclusion has been corroborated by the results of DNA research on goats, which also appear to have arrived from the east. These results have not been without criticism, though. Still, the language is now better understood than ever. Although we can not establish to which languages Etruscan is related, we can read most inscriptions, recognize cases and conjugations, and make a dictionary. There’s little left of the Etruscan mystery.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (12): Marathon

31 May 2009
A Greek soldier and his panoply (Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussels)

A Greek soldier and his panoply (Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussels)

In 490 BCE, Hippias, a former tyrant of Athens, attempted to return to his native city, which was, by now, in the hands of the democrats. His interests matched those of the Persian king Darius I the Great, who liked the idea of a pro-Persian regime among the Yauna-across-the-Sea. The expedition turned out to be an epic failure: the army was defeated at Marathon. After the Athenian victory, a man named Thersippus of Eroeadae ran to Athens to announce the outcome; having told his compatriots that they were safe, he fell down dead.

At least, that’s what Plutarch says in his treatise The Glory of Athens. But the reliability of this anecdote is about zero. Plutarch lived about six centuries after the events. Worse, he adds that other sources report that the runner was called Eucles, and that he covered the distance while wearing his panoply, which is physically impossible. The Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who lived shortly after the famous battle and could interview the survivors, knows nothing about the Marathon runner, although he does mention a long-distance runner named Pheidippides who ran to Sparta to ask for reinforcement.

Whatever the reliability of the story, Plutarch’s anecdote inspired the organizers of the first modern Olympics, in 1896 in Athens, to invent an athletic contest of epic dimensions: the marathon run. It was repeated on later occasions, and since the Olympic Games of London (1908), the distance has always been 42 kilometer. Many people now believe that it’s also 42 kilometer from the battlefield to the Athens, but that is not the case. It is in fact about 35 kilometer, depending on your route. I once covered it in a little over seven hours. Without panoply.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (8): The Year 547

15 May 2009
Nabonidus Chronicle, obverse (British Museum)

Nabonidus Chronicle, obverse (British Museum)

One of the most important texts for the study of the chronology of the sixth century BCE is the Nabonidus Chronicle, which seems to prove that the Persian king Cyrus the Great captured the Lydian capital Sardes in 547. This is an important synchronism between the chronologies of Greece and the ancient Near East. However, things are more complex than they are usually presented: it was not Lydia, but Urartu that was overthrown.

The historian’s first task is to get the sequence of events right. The more important issues, like explaining the events and explaining their significance, must wait until the chronology has been established. Those studying the eastern Mediterranean in the Archaic Age, have to cope with two problems:

  • The absence of a common era;
  • An incredible lack of sources.

At the moment, dendochronological researchers are making great advances, but the complications for the centuries before 490 BCE are still great, and our chronology remains to a large extent based on Egyptian king lists (overview) and Babylonian chronicles and Astronomical Diaries.

For Greece, the sequence of events in what we call the sixth century BCE is more or less known from Herodotus of Halicarnassus. The Histories contain a general account of the history of towns like Sparta, Corinth, and Athens, and many synchronisms: people who knew each other, battles, et cetera. It is obvious that Herodotus uses two chronological systems, which appear to be out of step for a generation, but his outline of Greek history -the relative chronology- is pretty clear. Unfortunately, it is difficult to establish an absolute chronology, i.e., to make a match between the events and the number of years.

However, the situation is not entirely hopeless. It is clear that the rule of Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos, coincided with the reign of the Persian king Cambyses, and that Polycrates’ downfall occurred after the double coup d’ état in Persia that took place in 522. We can be reasonably certain that the death of Polycrates occurred in 522-518. Finally, there is another synchronism between Greek and Persian history: the conquest of Lydia and the death of its king Croesus. This event is mentioned by Herodotus and several other authors, and took place between 550 (when the Persian leader Cyrus the Great overcame his Median overlord Astyages) and 539 (the year in which Cyrus took Babylon).

The Nabonidus Chronicle, also known as ABC 7 (= document #7 in A.K. Grayson’s Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles, 1975), appears to offer more information. The text mentions Cyrus several times. In the first place, there’s a reference to his overthrow of Astyages in the sixth year of the Babylonian king Nabonidus, i.e. 550 or 549. In the second place, the events in the ninth year of Nabonidus, 547/546:

In the month of Nisannu, Cyrus, king of Persia, called up his army and crossed the Tigris below the town of Arbela. In the month of Ajaru he marched against the country [damaged], killed its king, took his possessions, put there a garrison of his own. Afterwards, his garrison as well as the king remained there.

The damaged word is of course the crux. One sign can be read, and there is space for two other signs. In 1924, Sydney Smith proposed to read Lu-…, which he took as the first syllable of the word Lydia. Grayson thought that even a second sign could be read, and reconstructed Lu-u[d-di]. If this is correct, the king who was killed was Croesus, and we have a synchronism between the histories of the Near East and the Aegean world.

A first problem, however, is that Herodotus says that Croesus was not killed. Cyrus wanted to burn him alive, but when Croesus prayed to Apollo, it started to rain, and Cyrus -understanding that the Lydian was blessed by the gods- accepted him as a courtier. But this story poses no real problem. The Greek poet Bacchylides writes that when the last king of Lydia wanted to burn himself alive, the god intervened and took him  away to the mythical Hyperboreans in the extreme north. This is another way of saying that the god had pity and gave Croesus a tranquil death – he was not tortured but quietly “taken away” to a better place. Herodotus has rationalized this story and used Croesus to shape his narrative: the former king is always the “tragic warner” who invariably gives sound advice that is ignored. This is not historiography as we like to read it, but this is how Herodotus does things.

So, Croesus was killed or killed himself when Sardes was captured, and Herodotus’ story is no objection to accepting the synchronism. Most historians have put the end of Lydia in 547, which gives us the possibility to date several important events in Greece. An example is the battle of Thyrea between the Spartans and the Argives, which took place at the time of the fall of Sardes.

Of course, this assumes that Smith and Grayson are right that the damaged word is Lu-u[d-di]. However, Zadok pointed out that the orthography of Lydia is Lu-ú-du, and Grayson says in the “Addenda and Corrigenda” to ABC 9 (included in the second edition) that the signs may indeed be Lu!?ú!?-[du]. However, he also notes that Lambert read the first sign as Zu. To make matters worse, the first scholar to read this text, Hagen in 1894, read Su.

Nobody accepts the synchronism any more, and many scholars feel a bit embarrassed that they have so long seen on this tablet what they wanted to see. The only thing we know for certain is that in 547, Cyrus conducted a successful campaign west of the Tigris. In 1977, Cargill summed up the evidence and concluded: “There exists […] no clear evidence for the exact date of the conquest of Lydia”.

But this was too pessimistic. In 1997, Oelsner decided to settle the issue once and for all, and concluded that the sign is Ú, the first sign of Urartu. This makes sense. It is likely that Cyrus, after he had conquered Media, spent several years to establish his power in Iran – in other words, he demanded subjection by the tribes that had once been loyal to Astyages. Urartu belonged to these territories. If this is correct, we may assume that Sardes was in fact captured in 542 or 541, although a date after the fall of Babylon (539) can not be excluded: we have only Herodotus’ word that Sardes was captured before the cultural capital of the ancient world.


  • J. Cargill, The Nabonidus Chronicle and the Fall of Lydia, in: American Journal of Ancient History 2 (1977) 97-116
  • A.K.Grayson, Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles (1975)
  • J. Oelsner, “Review”, Archiv für Orientforschung 46/47 (1999/2000) 373-380.
  • R. Rollinger, “The Median ‘Empire’, the End of Urartu, and Cyrus’ Campaign in 547” in: Proceedings of the First International Conference on Ancient Cultural Relations between Iran and West Asia (2004).
  • Sydney Smith, Babylonian Historical Texts Relating to the Capture and Downfall of  Babylon (1924)
  • R. Zadok, Répertoire Géographique des Textes Cunéiformes:   Geographical Names According to New and Late Babylonian Texts 8 (1985)

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (3): Herodotus in Babylon

21 April 2009
Herodotus (Agora Museum, Athens)

Herodotus (Agora Museum, Athens)

It is often assumed that the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c.480-c.429) visited Babylon, the cultural capital of the ancient Near East. His description of sacred prostitution is believed so widely that the word “Babylon” has become synonymous with sexual liberty. However, this custom is not mentioned in the thousands of cuneiform tablets that have been discovered in the nineteenth and twentieth century – and although we may one day find a tablet that confirms Herodotus’ story, this becomes increasingly unlikely. There is a point where absence of evidence becomes evidence of absence.

And there are more details that are simply wrong. No one who had visited the city could have said that it had hundred gates, had a wall that was 88 kilometers long, 100 meters high and 25 meters thick. In the eighteenth century, the British historian Edward Gibbon wrote in his copy of the Histories:

These dimensions, which have been devoutly swallowed by the voracious herd, are gigantic and incredible … Thirteen cities of the size of Paris might have stood within the precincts of Babylon … I much doubt whether he ever saw Babylon.

Many modern scholars agree, but we should be honest: Herodotus does not claim to have visited the city. He does write things like “people who have not been there, will find it hard to believe that…” and “this was still there in my days”. Highly suggestive, but there is not a single explicit statement that he actually visited the place.


  • A. Kuhrt, “Babylon”, in:  E.J. Bakker, I.J.F. de Jong, H. van Wees (eds.), Brill’s Companion to Herodotus (2002)
  • R.Rollinger, Herodots Babylonischer Logos. Eine kritische Untersuchung der Glaubwürdigkeitsdiskussion (1993)

<Overview of Common Errors>

Six Battles of Thermopylae

2 August 2008


I’ve visited Thermopylae three times, have walked a bit through the mountains, climbed into an electric pylon to make the photo to the right – in short, it’s a place I like, even though it is, to quote a poet, “a guilty landscape” with almost too many historical associations. It is hard to imagine that this was once a narrow road along the coast and the site of six ancient battles. I already had something online, but expanded it. There’s a page about the landscape, a page about the famous battle in 480 BCE against the Persians, a page with Herodotus’ account, and a page with the other five battles (actually, six, but one of them was not really at Thermopylae).